Bill’s Indie Basement (10/25): the week in classic indie, college rock, and more
This week: orchestral synthpop fireworks from Anna Meredith; synthpop synthpop from Black Marble; High Llamas main man Sean O'Hagan goes solo and brings an old Microdisney bandmate along; Mikal Cronin undergoes trial by fire on his first solo album in four years; and San Francisco's The Gonks do twee punk right.
For more reviews on new album, check out Andrew's Notable Releases, and other records out today I liked (but didn't review) include: Young Guv's GUV II, Guided by Voices' Sweating the Plague, and UK band Dry Cleaning's second EP of 2019. And if you need more Basement-approved stuff there's: Wire are back with a new album; The Orielles announced their second album; and Taos duo Tan Cologne are better than their name.
I do not have synthesia, the neurological condition that couples two or more senses that is often just referred to as seeing sounds as color, but I can almost imagine what it's like while listening to "Sawbones," the opening song on producer/composer Anna Meredith's second studio album FIBS. It's a fireworks display of technicolor synths that first climbs upwards before exploding into an array of bright arpeggiations punctuated by drum bursts, going off just like the big booms during Macy's Fourth of July display. It just keeps going, dizzyingly, from there, ratcheting up the thrills like an Action Park ride that leaves you breathless if not a little bruised.
Meredith's music is extremely visual, which could be why she's becoming an in-demand composer for film and TV, having recently scored Bo Burnham's Eighth Grade and Hulu's new Paul Rudd clone-com Living With Yourself. Like her debut, even when FIBS leans more towards pop, her composer's ear for drama is rarely below the surface. Synthesizers dance like skipping stones on a lake while acoustic instruments -- strings, horns, distorted guitars -- dart across their path. Percussionist and singer Sam Wilson remains an essential collaborator, hitting a variety of thing with mallets that keep pace with Meredith's usually zooming music, like the driving "Inhale Exhale" and clattering "Killjoy." Sometimes his voice joins hers on lead, like on the swooping, soaring "Divining," one of the prettiest songs on FIBS. This is a less abrasive album than 2016's Varmints and a more cohesive one, too, with the vocal songs (like "Killjoy"), the mathier equations (like "Bump") and more orchestral pieces (see "Moonmoons") all clearly shot forth from the same, wonderful big bang.
Bigger Than Life is the first Black Marble album Chris Stewart has made since leaving New York for Los Angeles, and you can hear it in the music. The synthesizers are brighter, the drum machines have more snap and his voice rises from the murk and into the light. These are all good things. Dismal atmosphere and reverb-heavy production have its charms, for sure, but the sharper focus here pulls the melodies and hooks forward without sacrificing too much of the gothy appeal. He's still writing songs with titles like "Grey Eyeliner," and most of the songs touch on loneliness, but they bounce. It's like what Depeche Mode might've sounded like if Vince Clarke had stayed in the band to produce and program but let Martin Gore take over songwriting duties, and had a more open-door policy to real bass and guitars. (Is that just OMD? Kind of.) He's not reinventing the wheel here but there are so many great bummer-pop jams on this record -- "One Eye Open," "Feels," and "Grey Eyeliner" -- but none better than "Private Show" which, like most of the album, sails through dark clouds, darting above them occasionally to catch a few rays.
Nobody else makes music quite like Sean O'Hagan, unless you wanna try and get Brian Wilson, Ennio Morricone, Donald Fagen and Tim Gane to make a record together (and if you have clout/moolah to do that, please do!). Till that happens, he's in a genre of one, making bucolic, baroque pop, resplendent with giddy strings, lush harmonies, jaunty melodies, and woodblock percussion. For the past 30 years, he's done it leading High Llamas but he's just released his first solo album since 1989. That album was titled High Llamas, so where solo work starts and band ends is fuzzy at best -- most of Radum Calls, Radum Calls could be past off as a High Llamas album. There's one big difference, though. This album features three songs where Sean's old Microdisney bandmate, Cathal Coughlan, sings lead. (Microdisney got back together two years ago for a few shows.) Coughlan has a very distinctive, melodramatic vocal style which adds a little gravitas to gurgling tracks like "McCardle Brown" that mix lightly bloopy synthesizers, harpsichords, electric piano with a melody that could be from a Henry Mancini soundtrack. I prefer O'Hagan's voice, personally, which has a lightness that matches the arrangements that here favor the harp more than any instrument. "Never on a Lonely Day" is a pretty perfect lazy river of a song, but the instrumentals, like "Better Lull Bear," are even better. Some tracks, like "I Am Here," are a little too whimsical for their own good, but O'Hagan remains in a class of his own.
Following a long bout of writer's block, Mikal Cronin took a break from playing in Ty Segall's Freedom Band to retreat to Idyllwild, a small town in the mountains of southern California, to try and figure out where he was going wrong and hopefully right his course. Being away from the normal distractions worked and he demoed most of the songs that would make up Seeker there. His stay was cut short, though, due to arsonist-started wildfires that ripped through that part of the state. Returning to Los Angeles, Cronin went into the studio with engineer Jason Quever (Papercuts) and brought in the Freedom Band (Ty Segall, Emmett Kelly, Charles Moothart, Shannon Lay) and some other friends (including Williams Tyler, Ben Boye) to make the album. His experience in the mountains proved prophetic, though. “Fire — specifically its cycle of purging and reseeding the landscape—is a central theme to the record. Death and rebirth,” says Mikal. “I was looking for something: answers, direction, peace. I am the seeker.”
Seeker does sound like a new beginning, one that finds Cronin matching the lyrical upheaval with seriously dynamic arrangements. The record opens with "Shelter," a crashing rock song that sounds like he's being pelted by the elements; "Feeling like a fool here alone, show me where to go," he sings, as strings swirl wildly around him. The rest of the album has him trying to find his way out, and you don't need to be paying attention to the lyrics to sense the turmoil. Those dramatic strings populate the record, from "I've Got a Reason," where they compliment its fuzz pedal chorus, to "Show Me," where they swoop around the Petty-esque melody. The late Heartbreaker leader's presence is nearly as present as fire on this album which feels like "classic" rock (but not, you know, "classic rock"), more than the power pop of Cronin's first couple solo albums, or the flamin' hot psych he makes with Ty. It's a sound that suits him well. He still sounds like he's searching here, but Mikal's heading in the right direction.
If you buy the "Peak Vinyl" edition of Seeker, it comes with a bonus 12" that includes "Arsonist," a 17-minutes song suite about the man who started the Idlewyld fires. Meanwhile, Mikal Cronin's great self-titled debut just got repressed on vinyl for the first time since its 2011 release.
Led by Ave Lynch and Sami Perez, San Francisco's The Gonks make ultracatchy, minimal indie punk in the tradition of Tronics, Jonathan Richman, or Rough Bunnies. It's twee, but not self consciously so. The group caught the ear of Sonny Smith who is releasing their new album, Five Things You Didn't Know About The Gonks, on his Rocks in Your Head Label on November 22. He also produced the album and, by the looks of the press photo and his vocal presence on the track we're talking about today, he's in the band too. Five Things is pretty much everything you want from a group like this: 10 songs in 17 minutes, no fuss and just the right amount of muss. (Muss is very important with music like this!) "I'm A Lonely Night Driver" is almost entirely bass, drums and vocals -- very new wave -- and it's really all you could need or want. Unless you want some Nervous Norvus sound effects thrown in there for hairpin thrills. There's that, too.